Community Memorial

Heart Attack Patient Story

Gender Differences: Heart attack symptoms in women my differ

Sandy WelchEvery second counts when it comes to successfully treating heart attacks. But sometimes women don't seek help immediately because they're unaware that they can experience different symptoms — such as extreme fatigue and indigestion — that nonetheless are just as serious as the classic symptoms often experienced by men, such as chest and left-arm pain.

Sandy Welch, 59, of Menomonee Falls found herself in that situation one Sunday morning. Feeling tired and fatigued, she stayed home from church on the advice of her husband, Greg, who went to service without her.

"Later, I suddenly felt very sweaty," recalled Sandy. "I called my daughter and asked her to come and take me to the doctor when she was finished with church."

Then her left arm started trembling. That reminded her of her co-worker who had tragically died a month earlier of a heart attack at age 36. She'd experienced a shaking left arm during her attack. She then got sweatier and sweatier, "like I was wearing a wet swimsuit." She got in touch with Greg, who called 911.

Emergency medical technicians arrived within minutes, and Sandy was taken to Community Memorial Hospital. Sandy almost didn't make it to the hospital alive. She was suffering a massive heart attack.

Once at the Emergency Department, Sandy began to experience more typical heart-attack symptoms: pain up and down her left arm and behind her left shoulder blade.

Of the three arteries that feed the heart, her right coronary artery was 99 percent blocked and the left anterior descending coronary artery, also known as the "widow-maker," was about 80 percent blocked, said Mahmood Al-Wathiqui, MD, PhD, FACC, FSCAI, a Froedtert Health Medical Group cardiologist.

"She also was in cardiogenic shock, meaning very low blood pressure. If not treated immediately, a person's chance of survival drops to less than 20 percent within a few hours," Dr. Al Wathiqui said. "It was a very dangerous situation."

As her condition worsened, Sandy remembered experiencing an unusually acute sense of hearing, then saying goodbye to her husband and children. She also recalled how a technician kept urging her to keep fighting.

"It was a very powerful, emotional moment," she said of Nick Becker, the critical care technician and unit secretary, who she never got a chance to thank in person. "He'll never know how comforting it was to hear him saying, 'don't give up, Mrs. Welch, don't give up.'"

Thanks to fast action by the team of doctors and technicians, Sandy's goodbyes were premature.

The immediate course of treatment centered on medications to raise Sandy's blood pressure high enough to adequately support bodily functions, followed by an emergency heart catheterization performed by Dr. Al-Wathiqui.

Dr. Al-Wathiqui fixed the main cause of the heart attack — the clogged right coronary artery — by implanting a stent. Three days later, after giving Sandy's body a chance to rest, he inserted a stent in the left anterior descending coronary artery.

Sandy's experience underscores the importance of getting help right away, even if symptoms don't seem typical.

"The classic heart-attack symptom is left-chest and left-arm pain and sweating, but other symptoms include pain in the back, stomach and jaw, or shortness of breath," said Paul DiMiceli, BSN, RN, the Emergency Department and Intensive Care Unit manager. "There are differences in symptoms between women and men, and from one man to another and one woman to another."

About three weeks after Sandy's release from the hospital, she started cardiac rehabilitation classes. The classes combine workouts with education and group support.

Today, Sandy said she feels stronger every day, and can't say enough about the quality of care she received at Community Memorial.

"I'm getting my life back," she said. "I walk an hour a day, four to five days a week. And I have a different perspective on priorities in life. In the emergency room, I didn't think about how clean my house was or how much money we have in the bank. I thought about faith and my family. People have always come before material things."

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